On Doubting Ourselves (as Opposed to Holy Scripture)

I came across this comment in Bavinck as he examines the doctrine of eternal punishment and aims to bind the discussion to exegesis:

Human feeling is no foundation for anything important (RD, 4:708).

Bavinck has a deep appreciation for nature and for common grace.  For example, he affirms the reality of an implanted knowledge of God and recognizes the force of the consensus gentium (consensus of the nations) as an argument for belief in human immortality.  Yet, at the end of the day, he’s unwilling to crown fallen human intuition king in the realm of theology.

What do you make of the quote?  Is it helpful or unhelpful in relation to contemporary debates about hell and in relation to other theological loci?

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12 thoughts on “On Doubting Ourselves (as Opposed to Holy Scripture)

  1. Steve, I find Jamie Smith’s reflections on the new universalism to run along similar lines (not surprising perhaps given the shared Reformed lineage).

    Read it here, particularly his comments on the anthropomorphic “I-can’t-imagine” strategy of new universalist thinking.


  2. Pingback: links for 2011-04-26 | The 'K' is not silent

  3. Hello Steve,

    From the quotation and the post it seems like you find the current argument about hell and punishment to be reducible to human feeling versus Scripture. Implicit here is the assumption that we already have clear what Scripture says about the matter (and about other matters).

    First, why can’t we *also* doubt that the feeling that we have Scripture all figured out while “they” are simply running off of emotions? Second, isn’t the argument precisely about the witness of Scripture (the witness of Scripture may be clear and perspicacious but it is also manifold), which is why, naturally, very human are running so high on all sides? In fact, I think the “emotional part” or the “intuition” part of the whole debate more interesting and revealing than the actual exegesis involved on all sides (to both agree and disagree with Smith’s post).

    • Hi Ken,

      Thanks for your thoughts. The quote certainly does presume that the traditional exegesis regarding the doctrine of hell is very sturdy. I can only say 1) that I do believe in the perspicuity of Scripture vis-a-vis matters of spiritual exigence, 2) that I don’t think exegetes are so trapped in their presuppositions that they can’t arrive at a reasonably solid understanding of the pertinent texts, and 3) that the texts concerning eternal punishment seem to me to point clearly toward eternal, conscious punishment for those who reject Christ.

      It might be easy to accuse those with whom one disagrees of being governed merely by emotion. I think that’s a point worth taking into account. Yet, if the pertinent texts are clear enough (I understand people will disagree with how clear they are on this issue), I think one can ask whether those in the other camp are being swayed too much by emotion, which may or may not be reliable and, at any rate, isn’t more reliable than the scriptural testimony rightly understood. Because of the nature of this issue, I think it should have emotional dimensions. At the same time, one can still try to be objective without being detached.


  4. Was Bavinck responding to a kind of Schleirmachean pietism with his point on “feeling?” I’m wondering what the further reference, contextually is for Bavinck, “Liberal Theology?”

    • Bavinck basically has in mind a collection of things (post-mortem ‘second chances’, universalism, conditional immortality or annihilationism) that he believes deviate from mainstream Christian thought and reliable exegesis. When he names representatives, Schleiermacher is in the mix as well as Origen, the Socinians, and others. He expresses gratitude for the rise of more ‘humane’ societal sentiments, but urges that human ‘feeling’ or ‘sentiment’ can’t be the bedrock of society with respect to its views of justice and can’t be the bedrock of our view of the doctrine of eternal punishment. In this section, I didn’t pick up on Bavinck singling out ‘liberal theology’; he just names different people and groups before the rise of liberal Protestantism and after. He does include Schleiermacher and others whom we would probably view as liberals.

  5. @Steve,

    Thanks. Someday I’ll have to read Bavinck!

    Let me ask you then, What do you make of the quote? Is it helpful or unhelpful in relation to contemporary debates about hell and in relation to other theological loci? I see your response to Ken above, but to be more pointed (since I’m sure this is one of the things that prompted this post), what do you think about Rob Bell and his understanding of hell? He seems to be teaching a post-mortem possibility for “salvation” wherein, presumably, left to a deliberative libertarian like free-will all would happily respond to the “love” of Christ and escape the “flames of hell;” thus implying the vacation and ultimate vanquishing of hell (so de facto, a universalism). I’m assuming, given your theological preference (I mean you do like Turretin ;-), that you’re not at all happy with what Bell presumably is communicating, most recently. Anyway, I’m just trying to help you come out of the closet on Bell a bit further ;-) . . . you’ll feel better after you do hehe.

    • Haha, so direct! I’ve not read the Bell book, but I’ve read some of the responses in the blog world (Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, Steve Holmes, and others). Bell also spoke at my alma mater recently (Denver Seminary) and I’ve heard some thoughts from the folks there. As you hinted, I’m content with the old school view of eternal punishment. One of the things that I heard Bell say (on the MSNBC interview) was that once we start talking about death and the afterlife we’re firmly in the realm of speculation. That doesn’t sit well with me because 1) there are some biblical statements about the intermediate state that are worth taking into consideration and 2) it seems that the idea of post-mortem second chances is the real culprit when it comes to speculation since, as far as I can tell, there’s no implication of that sort of thing in Scripture.

      What do you think of all of it?

      • Steve,

        I’m direct ;-). I haven’t read the book either, but I’ve read many reviews (like DeYoung’s); and I also watched an 1.5hr long interview with Bell about the book (I figured that would do). I am also fine with the “old school” view (it’s sad that the “old school” view is becoming considered to be “old school”). I agree with you!

        I’m bothered by the Bell book, I find it irresponsible and unhelpful for providing a robust way to think about these issues for “untrained” or “lay” Christians in the church. I know quite a few people who seem to be quite happy about Bell’s book.

  6. I’ve not read Bavinck but I have to wonder what he means by “human feeling”. It’s a notoriously layered phrase. If he means emotion then perhaps his assessment is correct, that we are so thoroughly subjected to this world that we cannot, through our reactions to it, hope to achieve any sense of understanding or any perception of truth.

    Still, I’m not sure that human feeling can be separated from Divine Truth, that the Spirit doesn’t intertwine with the being of even the greatest blasphemer in some way to nudge the foundations of their soul. I can only theorize about that and would certainly need more time to draw out those thoughts but it would certainly be interesting to sit down and listen to Bavinck and Bonhoeffer have a conversation on the topic of shame.

    I believe that would be a good foundational dialogue to begin understanding how “human feeling” might actually lead to the revelation of the Divine.

    As far as Bell goes I think one of my friends was right in pointing out that while he may not be as controversial as he comes across, he is too much a deconstructionist when it comes to most things. He loves asking questions and taking things apart, it’s a shame that he doesn’t seem to love putting them back together especially since we live in a society that’s like a young child who’s taken apart his most cherished toy, and is happy to sit with the ruin of it laying around him thinking he’s great.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that getting a fairly clear definition of ‘feeling’ here is important. I tried to approach some level of clarity by differentiating between this negative description of feeling or emotion or intuition and other places in which Bavinck has a higher regard for things innate and natural (e.g., the implanted knowledge of God, belief in human immortality, belief in the mind-independent existence of the world, etc.).

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